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“The New Science of Literary Mensuration”: Accounting for Reading, Then and Now

Jonathan Farina, Seton Hall University

Before the graphs, maps, and trees of Franco Moretti’s “distant reading,” before even “close reading,” Victorian critics analyzed the significance of literature and the meanings of genre with statistical calculations and with enumerative lists that graphed, mapped, and made genealogical trees of the history of prose fiction.@ Counting was one of the generic practices of Victorian literary criticism. And such criticism, like modern work—including Dan Cohen’s Google Books project to account for all Victorian books and the frequencies of words in those books@—applies tropes of counting in what I call a supply-side economics of literary history; a literary history that essays to interpret quantitative data about publications as evidence of the elusive meanings, affects, and effects of reading.
“The Press during the Last Year,” published in Bentley’s Miscellany on the first of January, 1850, exemplifies the lowbrow version of this enumerative criticism. It addresses “the thousand millions of this world’s inhabitants” by calculating “what, by night and by day, through the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year of Grace 1849, the Press has been doing within the limits of the United Kingdom” (93), as if to suggest that a statistical measurement of the print published could represent the whole diversity of ephemeral and concrete human activities. Among other statistics, the article reports that daily papers distributed “349,308,000 superficial feet” of “printed surface” during the year. Adding weekly and fortnightly publications, it adds, makes for “1,466,150,000 square feet, upon which the Press has left in legible characters the proof of its labours” (93). The article figures how many times this would circle the equator—6, for those of you without a calculator—and then adds the acreage of print contributed in monthlies and quarterlies, the weight of paper all of this consumed, and then, summing up an elision of print production and print consumption that is characteristic of the genre of literary mensuration, then and now, it estimates the circulation estimates of The Times (94).
Such factoids about newsprint girdling the equator are the kind of statistical enchantment that belongs to the late-twentieth-century genre of trivia called bathroom-reading. But Victorian readers seem to have had an appetite for it, because most Victorian periodicals engaged in such numerical gymnastics, calculating the various gross dimensions of modernity. Household Words published all sorts of statistical articles: “Tea,” “Eggs,” “Pentonville Prison,” “Bank of England Notes,” “Railway Traffic in 1849,” “Middle Class Wealth,” “Britannia’s Figures,” “Powers of Calculation,” as well as an article, “The Appetite for News,” which summarizes and interprets the calculations from “The Press During the Last Year” and dubs its author “a new professor of the science of literary mensuration” (239). This professor, writes Household Words, “has applied his foot-rule to this mass of print” (239).
But “The Press During the Last Year” offers more relevant (to those of us, at least, who do not study bathroom reading) literary analysis. The article registers 4,000 new books printed or reprinted in London in 1849 and then performs a cursory but provocative analysis of the genres of these publications and what their relative proportions signify about British culture in 1849. But, like modern historians of reading, the article first concedes that most of the effects of these books, the personal interpretations and impressions of unrecorded individual readings, cannot be recovered: “Of the number of impressions of each of these which have found their way to the public, we can know nothing, and should probably say nothing, even if we knew; but it is rather more to our purpose to define the books that are published,—to discover what the Press has been the most busy upon,—what class of works the public most patronize, or that they who write to be read, conclude the public would most wish to have” (94). With varying degrees of critical awareness and even anxiety, practitioners of literary mensuration present publication data as evidence of reading, print numbers for unprinted impressions.
After publications of a religious character, which account for 1/5 of the commercial books produced in London in 1849, “The Press During the Past Year” records British interest in property, evidenced legal books; health, evidenced by medical treatises on cholera, which testify “to the alarm that the Cholera excited, and the total ignorance of medical men as to the nature of it and the right treatment of it” (95); the history of past ages and nations, including memoirs and letters and Macaulay’s History of England, whose influence the professor correlates to sales in excess of 20,000; biography; travels, including Layard’s Nineveh; more than 200 novels and 150 books of poetry; 200 books on education; 100 on geography; 200 on painting and architecture; 80 on the classics; 70 on Botany; and so on (95-98). For each genre, the journalist links statistical quantity to a predictable social cause. “The Press During the Last Year” is a short, anonymous article that does draw interesting attention to material book history—it admires an illustrated book of North American fish—but draws humdrum inferences about the generic statistics it produces and concludes with trite encomiums about the press as the engine of liberty and manifestation of British superiority.
Not all statistical criticism was so trite or so short. David Masson integrated the tropes of counting and statistics with traditional forms of textual analysis in his 1859 critical history of the novel, British Novelists and their Styles, which was the first book-length theory of prose fiction written by a professor of English literature. Masson divides British Novelists and their Styles into four lectures that cover the history of the novel chronologically, from classical epic to the future, but Masson’s methodology changes over the course of the history he writes. Parts of the book make familiar discriminations between poetry and prose, realism and idealism, Thackeray and Dickens, the novel of manners and the religious novel, and so on; other parts consist of lists, arithmetic, simple statistical calculations, and suppositions about what this data signifies.@ In these inventories of novels and novelists, Masson implies that novels ought to count, which is to say matter, not because of their attenuated relationship to classical genres of writing but because we can count them.@ Alongside his genealogy of prose fiction, he aligns novels with the prominent modern form of information and scientific analysis: statistics. Masson enumerates the history of novel as a set of epic catalogues, as an inventory@, and then he adapts that literary convention to the Victorian investment in numeration and facts by measuring these catalogues.
Let me share two long passages from British Novelists and their Styles (1859). I do this with Nicholas Dames’s recent work on the protocols of Victorian citation and on physiological theories of reading in mind.@ Dames suggests “that even the most potentially embarrassing or incorrect of critical practices may have lessons for us” (330), and, accordingly, he describes how Victorian critics of the novel used long citations not out of laziness or paucity of insight but to reproduce for readers the feeling, the affective experience, of reading the novel in total. I want to reproduce the feeling of “literary mensuration” in British Novelists and their Styles, to capture its paradigmatic effect of using numbers to affirm the substantial presence of an otherwise ineffable “impression” novels have had on their readers, and I want to see what we can learn from Masson’s embarrassing statistics:
THE British Novelists since Scott are a very numerous body. Among them may be reckoned some of those mentioned in my last Lecture as having preceded Scott in the field of Prose Fiction — particularly Mrs. Opie, Godwin, the two Miss Porters, Miss Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, and Mr. Maturin. Though these had all preceded Scott as writers of prose fiction, they continued to write novels after the author of Waverley had become the acknowledged king of that species of literature; and some of them were not less affected than their juniors by his surpassing influence. Then, in the list of British novelists who made their appearance during the eighteen years in which the Waverley novels were in progress … I count no fewer than thirty-five names of some past or present note [and here Masson lists all thirty five novelists by name and nationality, mapping their work in England, Scotland, and Ireland]@ … In the group of some ten or twelve active novel-writers upon whom the future hopes of the British novel were supposed to rest in 1832, the year of Scott’s death, were Theodore Hook, Miss Mitford, Mr. Disraeli, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, Mrs. Gore, Mr. James, and Mrs. Trollope. Several of these are still with us, and have certainly done more for the novel, in the matter of quantity at least, than could have been expected from them, — Sir Bulwer Lytton having produced in all some five-and-twenty novels; Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Trollope I know not how many; Mr. James I know not how many; and Mr. Disraeli having escaped similar productiveness only by that series of events which diverted his attention to politics, and has made him a British minister. To this group of novelists left in the field at Scott’s death, there have been added, in the course of the quarter of a century which has elapsed since then, a little legion of new recruits. I will not venture on a complete list of their names; but [and here Masson lists the full names of another 38 novelists who, he explains,]@will suffice to suggest the others. All in all, were we to include in the catalogue of “British Novelists since Scott,” all who have written novels with some degree of popular success from the date of the first Waverley novels to the present time, the catalogue, I believe, would include over a hundred names. (Masson 214-217)@
Whereas most nineteenth-century critics would distinguish a select list of stylistically innovative, particularly moral, influential, or otherwise modish writers for study as Masson himself does in the first two lectures of British Novelists and their Styles, Masson here catalogues novelists distinguished for “matter of quantity” and “productiveness.” Even in Lecture II he reverses traditional disparagements of the eighteenth century as the age of prose by itemizing and then praising its productivity: “it produced an unprecedented quantity of most excellent and most various Prose” (97).
The style described by British Novelists and Their Styles is as often as not productivity and popularity, quantitative measures of production and consumption. Horkheimer and Adorno would have choked on this almost explicit equation of cultural value and literary knowledge, the objectives of the critic, with production volume acquired directly from trade circulars, and booksellers’ and library catalogs.
Masson stops short of listing prices and revenues, but a cynical reader could justifiably claim that such numeration of novels effaces their content and reduces them to commodities that are commensurate with the tea, bank notes, prisoners, and eggs tabulated—and imagined wrapped end-to-end around the equator—by the statistical articles in Household Words. Such criticism quantifies literary production and consumption in material, dimensional terms: neither monetary value, then, nor the “depth” and “breadth” of moral and aesthetic knowledge, but area, length, quantity, and weight, ponderous measures indicative of substantial, three-dimensional physical work done by the “velocity of” what Masson calls “the novel-producing apparatus at work among us” (220). “If a list of the British novelists since Scott seems formidable,” Masson continues,
how much more formidable would be the sight of the novels produced by them gathered into one heap! On this point allow me to present you with some statistics. … Now, I have been informed that the number of novels standing on the shelves of the British Museum Library as having been published in Britain in the year 1820 … is 26 in all, counting 76 volumes; that, ten years later, or in 1830, when the Waverley series was nearly finished, the yield to the library in this department had increased to 101 books, or 205 volumes within the year; that twenty years later, or in 1850, the yield was 98 books, or 210 volumes; and that for the year 1856, the yield was 88 books, or 201 volumes. Taking these data as approximately accurate, they give us the curious fact that the annual yield of novels had been quadrupled by the time of Scott’s death as compared with what it had been when he was in the middle of his Waverley series, — having risen from 26 a year, or a new novel fortnight, to about 100 a year, or nearly two novels every week; and, moreover, that this proportion of about 100 new novels every year, or two every week, has continued pretty steady since Scott’s death, or, if there has been any change, fallen off lately rather than increased. Making average calculation from these facts, I find there may have been in all about 3000 novels, counting about 7000 separate volumes, produced in these islands since the publication of “Waverley.” And this corresponds pretty well with calculation made on independent grounds. In the London Book Catalogue, giving a classified Index of all books published in Great Britain the year 1816 to the year 1851 inclusive, the novels, or works of prose fiction, occupy twenty-two pages, and amount to about 3300 separate entries. In this list, however, reprints of old novels, as well as translations and reprints of imported novels, are included. Balancing these against the probable yield of the six years, from 1852 to 1857 inclusive, not embraced in the catalogue, I believe that my calculation, as just stated, may pass as near the truth.
Now, you don’t expect me to have read, during my pilgrimage, these 7000 volumes of British novels. (218-20)
As modern scholars of the science of literary mensuration aspire to see the “big picture” by “distant reading,” Masson’s numeration articulates his awe of a field of prose fiction that exceeds any individual’s reading capacity, including his own. Numbers can explain what we cannot read.
By foregrounding “facts,” Masson also cultivates the effect of distance requisite to Victorian knowledge.@ He cultivates this distance by counting novels and novelists in the aggregate, as members of a “numerous body” and a capacious “field of prose fiction,” that is significant as a body and as a field and as an apparatus, but not in individual writers, texts, and readers. This emphasis on collectives is representative of efforts to develop a science of criticism. E. S. Dallas, for example, who eschewed statistics, wrote in The Gay Science (1866) that “In so far as a science of human nature is possible, it lies not in the actions of the individual, but in those of the race; not in the developments of a lifetime, but in those of ages and cycles” (19).@
Masson marshals quantitative data as evidence of historical cycles in his discussion of the new spirit of the age in Romantic prose fiction: “between 1789 and 1814, I count twenty novelists, of sufficient mark to be remembered individually in the history of British Prose Literature,” and Masson lists Robert Bage, John Moore, Thomas Holcroft, Charlotte Smith, Sophia and Harriet Lee, Inchbald, Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, Opie, Godwin, Anna and Jane Porter, Edgeworth, Austen, Brunton, Hamilton, Hannah More, Owenson, and Maturin (184). Masson is reticent to specify what the work of these twenty novelists reveals about British history or the history of the novel because he acknowledges that reading is a largely individual, unrecorded, and ephemeral experience of “impressions” (124, 184) and personal “associations” (163, 164, 184). “I must depend,” Masson writes at the end of this list, “very much on your own associations with these names for the impressions you are likely to take, along with me, as to the nature of the change or changes in British novel-writing which they represent as having occurred in the quarter of a century now under notice” (184). While the quantity of authors and novelists suggests significant change, the qualities of that change belong to individual readers. Masson produces a database, of sorts, that nominally indexes the number but not the nature of associations and impressions that were available to readers of Romantic prose fiction.
Masson does interpret two specific numerical “facts.” First, he notes how “no fewer than fourteen out of the twenty novelists that have been named were women” (184-5). And “no fact of this kind is accidental” (185). Masson links this female majority to changes in the condition of women in Europe, the shift of men to other literary genres, and transformations of the “general fund” or “stock” of political, economic, social, and personal ideas and affects. Masson remarks that women, in dominating the novel, vastly improved it, and he prognosticates that perhaps women might just as profitably appropriate all other genres. Without subordinating fiction to those other genres, Masson surmises that prose fiction, as evidenced by his statistics, is particularly suited to feminine expression and that both are correlated to progress and modernity.
Masson then uses statistics to demonstrate the emergence of Ireland, Edinburgh, and Scotland generally in fiction (no fewer than 19 out of 29 Waverley novels describe Scotland, according to Masson’s calculations [198]). As in “The Press During the Last Year,” this observation leads to a classification of subgenres and an observation of the “tendencies” marked by prose fiction, including the embodiment of “those social speculations and aspirations which had sprung out of the French revolution” (189); a “democratic spirit” which Godwin’s Caleb Williams exemplifies; a turn to the Gothic as both reactionary “veneration for the past” and a contemptuous, imaginative rejection of classical forms of representation (191-2); and the emergence of a peculiarly feminine mode of description and the description of feminine manners, tastes, and feelings previously elided by fiction (194-5).
But none of these three observed “tendencies” is tied to statistical calculations. Masson alternates between the interpretive work that we recognize as historicist textual analysis and the numerical gymnastics I have been describing. Paradoxically, whereas numbers might be thought to register the knowable, fixed data of novel production, I think in British Novelists and their Styles they instead mark the limits of Masson’s interpretative tact and his recognition of his limited knowledge of the impressions produced by everyday readers. His numeration accounts for significance and affects that he refuses to summarize. I am thinking here of Michel de Certeau’s idea of readers not just as users but as second-level producers, whose ephemeral, elusive product, reading, matters even though it is immaterial, an abstract “poaching” of someone else’s product (165-76). In odd passages, Masson’s book describes his ideal mode of interpretation as an effort to register the residues of such poaching:
The moral effect of a novel or poem, or any work of the kind, lies not so much in any specific proposition that can be extracted out of it as its essence, and appended to it in the shape of an ethical summary, as in the whole power of the work in all its parts to stir and instruct the mind, in the entire worth of the thoughts which it suggests, and in the number and intensity of the impressions which it leaves. The addition which it makes to the total mind, the turn or wrench which it gives to the mind, the collection of impressive pictures which it hangs on the walls of the imagination—these are the measures of its value, even morally. (124-25)
Among other things, Masson here quantifies the effects of reading—“number and intensity of impression[s]”—without specifying them. Masson writes partly in opposition to the protocols of organic, Coleridgean or Henry-Jamesian, neo-New-Critical interpretation whose emergence Suzy Anger has described. Masson’s criticism accounts for but does not name or delimit or interpret the sheer volume of “impressions” and “associations” “added” to the aggregate field of fiction readers by each novel.@
This is not to say that Masson writes exclusively in numerical terms and altogether abstains from interpretation. To the contrary, half his book consists of interpretations of linguistic subtleties, themes, sub-genres, and styles. But even this half is underwritten with a language of mathematics that affirms the impressive substantiality of fiction: “Subtracting” (16), “additions and subductions” (92), and “calculation” (90); “divided” (39) and “amplified” (58); “numerous” (17), “numberless” (48), and “inordinate” (84); “the lower rate” (19), “abundance” (24, 53), “superabundance” (182), “plenitude” and “multitude” (201); “hundreds of notions” (24), “hundreds of circumstances” (24), “hundreds of other writers” (24), “two hundred and ten” (89), “thousands” (181), and “half a score” (96); “accumulation” (27), “measure” (33), “degree” (34), “relative quantity” (95), and “statistical fact” (187); “proportion” (37), “proportionately” (79), and “portion” (74); “equilibrium” and “duration” (259); “equally” (42), “singularly” (75), and “double” (49); “amounts” (42), “exponents” (48), and all sorts of numbers.@ Without a consistent, adequately complex, and institutionally-authorized vocabulary of prose analysis or narratology, Masson applies the language of mathematics to associate his procedures with the truthiness and prestige of statistics and numbers.
All the numbers Masson crunches on the authors’ side of the equation put into relief his inability to count the impressions of readers other than himself. In the Victorian period as now, counting aspires to measure the invisible, ephemeral acts of reading, the private impressions and associations that must count for something—almost everything—even if their precise form exceeds interpretation and articulation. My own book project interprets the colloquialisms that recur most frequently in nineteenth-century prose as evidence of the most prevalent assumptions accepted by nineteenth-century readers. But many modern scholars of the history of reading recognize the implausibility of modern interpretations ever recovering the meanings that historical readers might have ascribed to the texts they read. Practicing a supply-side economics of literary scholarship, like Masson, some of these scholars substitute production for reading and count trends in publication and genre differentiation, and in so doing implicitly proffer these numbers as accounts of what the collective reading market desired or appreciated. But Masson seemed to sense that the impressions of readers did not always correspond to the generic or stylistic features he could identify but sometimes could only be counted. Some readers “poached.” And while numbers could not explicate the details of such poaching—the actual impressions or associations gleaned by readers—they accounted for the presence of these impression and association. Numbers stood in for how literature surely, if ineffably, affected its readers.
Jonathan Farina is Assistant Professor of English at Seton Hall University and an Affiliated Scholar at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University. He has taught at NYU, where he completed his PhD in 2008, and at Vanderbilt University.  He is working on a book about everyday phrases and the epistemology of character in nineteenth-century British writing.
Works Cited
Anger, Suzy. Victorian Interpretation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005.
[Anon.], “Appetite for the News,” Household Words 1.10 (1850): 238-40.
[Anon.], “The Press During the Past Year,” Bentley’s Miscellany 27 (January 1850): 93-98.
Dallas, Enaeas Sweetland. The Gay Science. London: Chapman and Hall, 1866.
Dames, Nicholas. The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form Of Victorian Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 2007.
---. “On the Protocols of Victorian Citation,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction (June 2009): 326-331.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1972. 120-67.
Masson, David. British Novelists and their Styles. Boston: D. Lothrop & Co, 1875.
Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory. London: Verso, 2005.
Stallybrass, Peter, “Against Thinking,” PMLA 122.5 (October 2007): 1580-87